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Days before race weekend, the turf around Atlanta Motor Speedway has sprouted FEMA-like villages of RVs with fans who have paid big bucks for a choice location. By Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event, the track's population will surpass Topeka's.

Flapping high above tents and trailers, flags sport racecar numbers and signature booze brands (Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, and Budweiser). Liquor and raw language flow as fans hoot for their heroes and jeer those whom they've labeled the bad guys. The crowd response to Juan Pablo Montoya, a top driver from Colombia, leaves little doubt that folks here can't stand the guy who is perceived as "driving dirty" and not being a team player.

At times, racing fans are out for blood. After legendary racer Dale "the Intimidator" Earnhardt crashed and died in the 2001 Daytona 500, the driver whom fans blamed for the accident received death threats. But when 43 cars spin around an oval at nearly 200 miles per hour, common sense tells you that sooner or later, something bad will happen (see "Cheating Death," page 28).

Champions don't win races by riding their brakes. Sooner or later, somebody else will die. "If you give 43 guys, mostly between the ages of 20 and 35, cars this powerful," a racing official said in the best-selling book The Physics of NASCAR, "there's only so safe you can make it."

Since 1971, at least 26 NASCAR drivers have been killed at racetracks. When a driver crashes, people in the grandstands cheer. "They don't know if he's dead or alive," comments superstar Tony Stewart in his 2003 documentary film, Smoke. "I don't think they care."

Tony's mom says, "I pray a lot."

Walking the Line

Fueled by testosterone, horsepower, and Fortune 500 mega-funding, the National Association for ...

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August 2008

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